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Cargo delays in Michigan renew calls for new Great Lakes icebreaking ships

 US Coast Guard Cutter
US Coast Guard Cutter Alder in Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, (Submitted photo)

LANSING— Frequent breakdowns of U.S. Coast Guard ships that cut ice on the Great Lakes in January left sailors stranded, delayed 750,000 tons of cargo and prompted some to call for more federal support for the shipping industry.

Shippers and port operators now are concerned that without more icebreakers — and with legislation funding those ships stalled —  the same issues lie ahead of them in late March when the Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula reopen.

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The Ninth Coast Guard District breaks ice in the Great Lakes to keep shipping routes and ports open during winter. The Coast Guard helps ships that are stranded in ice-covered waters and break the ice to control flooding caused by jams during the spring thaw.

Typically, the Coast Guard uses different-sized icebreaking ships to clear trails for commercial boats to transport goods. The Mackinaw, the Great Lakes’ largest icebreaker, was inoperable this season because of maintenance issues. That left the Coast Guard eight smaller boats, five of which were simultaneously inoperable at one point in January.

“The Coast Guard cobbled together icebreaking efforts in the upper Great Lakes with aging, deteriorating assets,” said Jayson Hron, communications director for Duluth Seaway Port Authority in Minnesota. “Those limitations inhibit the flow of commerce and increase strain on the ship’s crews and commercial tug operators.”

The Great Lakes ice stopped several ships in their tracks. Hron said smaller icebreaking ships could not dislodge a freighter, the American Century, when it got stuck in the St. Mary’s River on its way to the Soo Locks, which closed Jan. 15 for maintenance and will reopen on March 25.

The American Century’s dislodge delayed three other ships trying to pass through the Soo Locks, Hron told Bridge Michigan.

“Those ships navigated as best as they could and the local commercial tugboat operators did their best to assist them into the port,” Hron said.

Eric Peace, secretary of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, said the lack of ample icebreakers delayed 20 voyages of cargo moving through the Great Lakes, like concrete, sand, gravel and iron ore. Peace said most of the American steel industry's iron ore supply comes from the Upper Great Lakes region in ships that reach up to 1,000 feet long.

“It’s extremely important for the entire North American economy that we’re able to maintain these routes,” Peace said.

The Coast Guard says it recognizes the need to recapitalize and add more icebreaking ships to the Great Lakes icebreaking fleet, including a ship that has the same ice-breaking capabilities as the Mackinaw.

Part of the $2 trillion federal Build Back Better Act, which passed in the U.S. House but stalled in the Senate, would allocate $350 million for a Great Lakes icebreaker like the Mackinaw. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, voted for the provision. 

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“(The) Great Lakes economy and its ability to thrive depend on year-round access to shipping lanes,” she said.

In a June 2020 Report to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security was reluctant to support another icebreaker like the Mackinaw because a “preliminary analysis indicates a limited operational need for such a vessel.”

Peace said another Mackinaw-like icebreaker would not only support Great Lakes navigation for shipping, but also help prevent flooding.

“Last February, we saw extensive flooding because of an ice dam in the St. Clair River,” Peace said. “At the time the lone heavy icebreaker operated by the Coast Guard was not available because it was undergoing repairs.”

Officials have already posted flood warnings for the St. Clair River.

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